This week, two government agencies — the Department of Energy and the FBI — announced that they had concluded the most likely origin of the Covid virus, which has killed 6 million people worldwide, was that it leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The reaction to this news, which at this point was hardly an earth-shattering conclusion, is more interesting for the question it prompts about the state of American discourse: How do you have an argument with people who will never admit when they’re wrong?
Not coincidentally, if you’re interested in checking out the state of late-night “comedy” — I have to explain to my kids that this used to be a sector of popular entertainment that people actually watched and enjoyed — here’s “Daily Show” guest host Hasan Minhaj weighing in on the matter: “By the way, [the Department of Energy’s] conclusion with ‘low confidence’ is such a f-ckboy move,” he said, adding, “And now, every f-cking idiot I went to high school with is like, ‘Apologize to me right now, Hasan! I told you I was right, and if your hand is bigger than your face, you’re gay.’”
I haven’t laughed that hard since Minhaj hosted the White House correspondents’ dinner. Which is to say I will also tell my kids that the correspondents’ dinner was a decadent self-congratulatory exercise in speaking power to truth that no respectable person didn’t revile.
Anyway, to paraphrase a comedic maxim, what Minhaj is saying is not funny because it’s not true. Perhaps Minhaj gets a pass here because he’s a comedian, right? And to be fair, if you watch the whole clip Minhaj does say he doesn’t know what to think about the virus’ origins. However, his bit does reveal a deeper, if unintentional, truth — he’s channeling a concise distillation of the textbook two-step that was broadly and institutionally adopted to downplay the significance of the DOE and FBI coming out and admitting they think the lab leak is the most likely explanation for the origin of the virus.
The first move was to throw cold water on the certainty of the Energy Department and FBI’s conclusions. Yes, other government agencies have concluded that a “zoonotic” origin — that the virus jumped from animals to humans — is more likely. Are the agencies that came to the opposite conclusions as qualified in making their determinations as the DOE or FBI? Who knows? More importantly, who cares? Because the fact there’s disagreement here is entirely beside the point.
The second part of the process was to deliberately revise history to completely misrepresent the nature of the original debate over the virus’ origin, to dismiss the real reason people now feel vindicated. It’s not because the DOE or FBI has settled the debate. It’s because we were never allowed to have a debate over the virus’ origins in the first place.
The media consensus on the lab-leak theory congealed so rapidly that it completely distorted the debate in two more distinct ways. First, it viciously and dishonestly conflated anyone who espoused the possibility of the lab leak with the fringe Alex Jones crowd who was speculating that China had deliberately released an engineered bioweapon against the West. The Washington Post more or less libeled Sen. Tom Cotton for fanning “the embers of a coronavirus theory that has been repeatedly debunked by experts,” when the experts quoted by the Post later admitted they misunderstood his remarks.
Second, media “fact-checkers” all weighed in against the lab leak, and for some reason, these incompetent journalistic meter maids are deferred to by Big Tech companies to make rulings about complex political and scientific issues that ultimately determine what you can and can’t say online. The result is that for a year or so you were censored on Facebook for discussing even the possibility of the lab leak.
Anyway, it’s also worth taking special note of the subtle rhetorical sleight of hand Minhaj employs to dismiss those who feel vindicated by the fact you’re now allowed to discuss the possibility that Covid leaked from a laboratory doing gain-of-function research on coronaviruses that’s curiously close to where the outbreak originated: He calls them “f-cking idiots” and then dunks on his supposedly less successful high school classmates for an added soupçon of moral superiority. (For what it’s worth, even former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart apparently qualifies as a “f-cking idiot” regarding the lab-leak theory.)
Yes, I know — it’s late-night on basic cable. Clown nose is on. Except once again, Minhaj is perfectly representative of the disingenuousness to be found elsewhere. Here’s MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan saying the quiet part out loud earlier this week:
The simple reason why so many people weren’t keen to discuss the ‘lab leak’ *theory* is because it was originally conflated by the right with ‘Chinese bio weapon’ conspiracies and continues to be conflated by the right with anti-Fauci conspiracies. Blame the conspiracy theorists.
In other words, the lab-leak theory was closely associated with people they disagreed with who they themselves deliberately conflated with conspiracists. Got it. This isn’t even the worst of it; there was a real consensus that the only possible motivation anyone may have had to discuss the lab leak was the same motivation the bad people have for everything: rayyycccissssm. Here’s the attempt of former Vox columnist David Roberts to sum up the lab-leak debate:
From what I can tell:
1. There’s no real practical *consequence* to whether the virus came from a lab or a market.
2. Nonetheless, a set of pundits has *obsessively* pursued the leak theory, repeatedly declaring victory despite a lack of evidence.
3. However, the pundits involved are at great pains to assure us that there’s definitely no racism or xenophobia involved in their obsessive pursuit of this theory w/ no evidence & no real consequences.
What explains the obsession? They don’t say. Definitely not xenophobia though!
Now it bears saying that Roberts is something of an edgy liberal journalist — not that there’s anything wrong with that, if anything I appreciate the honesty. However, this same view has been manifested in much more insidious ways throughout the media in such a way as to define the debate over the lab leak from the outset.
In February 2020, when Covid fear was spreading rapidly and the Chinese government was actively stonewalling international attempts to investigate what was going on, super serious “Face the Nation” invited the Chinese ambassador on. Well, you can watch the clip for yourself, but the host of the show lobbed hanging curveballs about Tom Cotton’s alleged “conspiracy theories” over the plate to a mouthpiece for a government that has ethnic minorities in literal concentration camps, and then just stood back in sympathetic silence as the commie bastard denounced America’s “xenophobia”:
Now, I went to a public university and haven’t ascended to the dizzying heights of, say, guest-hosting a show on basic cable no one’s cared about in a decade. But let me see if I have this correct. Our two choices for how the virus originated are:
1) The virus escaped from a sophisticated virology lab doing research with U.S. funding, and the leak was covered up by an oppressive unrepresentative communist government that cared more about preserving its reputation than saving lives.
2) A bunch of poor people half a world away whose dietary habits are fueled by exotic traditions got sick selling and eating bizarre bush meats in an unhygienic “wet market.”
Confronted with those possibilities, somehow blaming the communist government for the pandemic, rather than the Chinese people, is proof of a rising racism and xenophobia in America that must be forcibly silenced?
In the end, it does not matter that what happened in the lab-leak debate was unfair and obviously wrong. The self-appointed gatekeepers must persist in lying to everyone — including themselves — both about what they did to skew the facts and their own virtue relative to those they disagree with. If mere reality were allowed to disrupt the feedback loop of self-justification involved in all things Covid, a whole lot of arrogant people would wake up feeling sick about themselves, plagued by the feverish sensation that they were the real “f-cking idiots” they tried to warn everyone else about.